Film or Digital?

When choosing a format you should consider the following:

– The cost of renting equipment.

– The cost of the format all the way through to the final product.

– The look you are going for and is film or digital better at achieving it.

– The archival stability of the medium.

Here is some information you may find useful about all of the above.

The most expensive cameras to rent are the high end digital cameras. I charge $700 per day to go out with my 35mm camera. Just renting a complete Arri Alexa, Sony F-65 or Red package can easily cost $2,500 per day. The $1,800 you save on rental can be put toward film stock processing and transfer. If you can keep your shooting ratio low you might actually save money.

Many people assume that the cost of renting a high end digital camera package is worth it because there are further costs (film stock , processing, transfer etc) and they can just edit their project and be done with it. However this is usually far from the case. Most editing systems cannot handle the large 4k Red, Sony or Arri raw files generated by the latest cameras so you may be looking at an expensive down conversion followed by having to conform the original files at a post house. Also like film, these files have to go through a professional color timing process to achieve the final look you are going for. This usually costs as much as film to digital transfer. You won’t save the cost of processing or transfer so many people expect to save by shooting with high end digital cameras. You are just replacing them with other costs. Film can be transferred to any format you want, so you can use your existing post production workflow. If you need film prints it is far cheaper to make them from the original film negative than transfer a digital movie to film. Overall the post production workflow of high end digital is more complex and expensive than film.

The best digital cameras now available can produce very good images especially if the scenes tonal range is within their contrast range. However the image looks very modern with no grain and often artificially sharp, flatter look. This may be fine for certain films like Avatar but if you are doing a period drama set in the 70s it may not be the look you are going for. Also I haven’t seen any digital camera that can compete with films ability to reproduce bright highlights and the look of natural sunshine. With its extended tonal range film reproduces light the way the human eye sees it with plenty of detailĀ  and color in the highlights, shadows and everywhere in between. In fact any type of lighting involving bright highlights (sunlight coming thru windows etc.) looks great on film and often doesn’tĀ  work as well on digital which reaches it’s limit far earlier. Many modern digital claim a 14 stop dynamic range but I have yet to see one that handles highlights as well as film does.

Film is also the only proven archival medium. Even movies that are shot digitally are being archived on film. The long term stability of memory cards is unknown since they haven’t been around very long. The archival stability of hard drives is at best poor. Think of all the computers and hard drives you have replaced in your life.

DSLRs and large chip digital cameras
Many people today are choosing to shoot low budget projects with DSLRs. With their shallow depth of field these often provide a nicer look than conventional low cost digital video cameras and are very affordable.

You should keep in mind however that although the depth of field is similar to film, these cameras still have the limited tonal range of digital video and their image still looks like video. Highlights are still very limited and tend to white out very quickly like most digital cameras. Aliasing can be a problem since their chips are not designed for shooting video and extensive digital processing has to take place for them to do it. Audio capabilities are often limited, so it is usually best to record sound separately and use a slate to sync. DSLRs are also not very well designed for handheld shooting or shooting outdoors. The viewfinder does not work when shooting video and you have to rely on the small screen on the back or a separate monitor. Connecting a monitor often disables the built in viewing screen. Video clips are limited to about 10-30 minutes (due to camera overheating) so they are not great for recording live events or conferences etc.

If you are considering shooting with a DSLR I have 2 better options. My Panasonic GH5 and Sony A7r2 mirrorless digital camera with top mounted audio units shoot superior 4k or 1080p digital without the aliasing or design problems of typical DSLRs. Designed to shoot native 4k video these fully professional digital camera provides all the features you would expect in a video camera and their large chip provides the shallow depth of field everyone wants. Both shoot great looking footage right out of camera or can shoot log for color grading later. The GH5 features 4:2:2 10 bit video and Hybrid log gamma and Vlog and high bit rates up to 400Mbps. The Sony has a larger (Super 35 or full frame) sensor and Sony’s excellent Cine 4 look as well as SLog2.

Overall for any project that need to look as good as possible I would suggest shooting 35mm film. It usually doesn’t cost any more than shooting on high end digital and will look better. If you want to save some money and still get the look of film try Super 16. If budget is tight and you need to shoot with a DSLR try the GH5 or A7r2. Both will give you superior results at a great price.